For all that academia is a ‘brainy’ pursuit, many disciplines also rely on an impressive array of motor skills and physical abilities. Perhaps you need to be able to carry those archaeological samples out of a desert canyon, or you need to be able to dissect a fruit fly’s brain under a microscope. I remember an old Grey’s Anatomy episode where a resident was dismissed for not having a surgeon’s “hands”. In an ideal world we could surmount, bypass, or move any physical barriers to our academic dreams – but is that always realistic?
Sometimes it just means altering one’s expectations. In one of my prior research positions I mentored a student with cerebral palsy. The project they worked on required many different abilities that I took for granted in myself and other students – the ability to perform precise measurements quickly, walk long distances quickly, and enter data quickly (you are probably seeing a pattern here). Ultimately he could do 95% of what all of the other students could, it just took him a bit more time and effort. In the end his project went so well he came back for a second summer, and it was a rewarding experience for both of us… he on track for a successful career in science.
Sometimes it means a lot of hard work and effort. Perhaps a task requires good hand-eye coordination – better if you have it innately, but with enough practice and experience you can become an expert. Perhaps you need to get over a fear of the water and learn how to scuba dive. Or perhaps those archaeological samples that need to be carried can be an inspiration for better health and physical condition. Last semester I took some students on a walk for our last lab. I realized halfway through that one of my students was really struggling with our pace, and she was very embarrassed that she couldn’t keep up. At one point in my career I was like her… I remember how horrible I felt when I realized that I was holding my PhD supervisor up in the field. It took a lot of concerted effort over many months to get myself in shape enough that I could keep up. Even today I’m not a superstar in the field and I have to acknowledge my limitations when planning sampling.
It can be a real challenge to motivate yourself physically, and not everyone is going to choose that path. However, it’s not only cardiovascular ability and physical strength needed. Many fields require long days (and nights) in uncomfortable conditions in sometimes remote locations. This can really be a barrier early in students’ careers – if the first experience a student has is exhausting, embarrassing, and uncomfortable, they are less likely to stick with that field. This could be a real hindrance against diversity in certain fields.
Sometimes, however, all the hard work and effort isn’t going to lead to success. One of my dissertation experiments was almost a complete wash because I couldn’t pipette at the required level of precision due to a physical condition. I ended up needing help with that part of my project, and after that, I knew that I couldn’t specialize in that area. I do think that there are some physical barriers that are serious enough that not every person can do every job, no matter how we strive for equality and opportunity. If the barriers are in the sample collection stage an academic could become an expert in analyzing the data, interpreting the materials, and/or writing – but that’s more feasible later in your career. Students are expected to be able to succeed in all aspects of their research projects. How do you help students understand or work past their limitations? How do we, as mentors, provide support and realism at the same time?